The lairds of Scotland - where just 20 aristocratic families still own almost 10 per cent of the land - were put on notice that bad management could end in compulsory purchase by the state. Crofters and communities will have more opportunities to buy the land their livelihoods depend upon and lairds will lose feudal powers enabling them to block developments from vital jetties to cottage porches.
Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said the reforms were not intended as "a raid" on landowners, most of whom conscientiously did their best. But there had to be increased diversity in the way land was used and owned.
Land ownership is a potent issue, fuelled by a folk memory of the 18th- century Highland Clearances and neglect by absentee lairds.
Within the next few weeks, the 70 residents of the remote Knoydart peninsula on the west Highland coast hope to sign a lease for a rent of pounds 1 plus a bottle of malt whisky to end decades of uncertainty under a series of landlords. It follows the peninsula's recent purchase by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the neighbouring laird.
Mr Dewar described the package as a "dowry" for the new Scottish Parliament, to be elected in May.
The new regime could be in force by summer 2000. Around the same time Lottery money should come on stream to help community buy-outs, with a possible pounds 10m available over two years.
When estates come up for sale, communities will be given first option to buy at a price set by a government-appointed valuer. Lairds who try to evade the provision will risk compulsory purchase. Buy-out powers will be available for extreme cases of bad management.
At least 20 Highland communities are aiming to buy or secure a bigger stake in their land. The classic model for a "buy-out" was in 1993 when the crofters of Assynt, in the far north-west of Scotland, acquired a 21,000-acre estate from a Swedish property company.
The Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland's biggest private landlord and a staunch Tory, said he would not have voted against the reforms. "If you have a basket of apples and there are few rotten ones, it is just as well to throw them out," he said.
For people who just want to walk in the countryside is the promise of early legislation "for a right of responsible access to land" for recreation and passage.
Deborah Orr, Review, page 5Reuse content